Lively Up the Dead Zone: Remembering democracy’s racist state crimes (Ashe)

by Janine Jones


A critique of political thinking in Africana thought brings us to a crossroads. At this intersection, passing trajectories meet. Moving in opposite directions, they send contradictory messages concerning democracy, racism, and political violence. One trajectory pursues the accomplishments of Africana intellectual, artistic, economic, and political elites…  The other trajectory tracks the misery of local and global black masses. It also traces minority group repression by global capitalism, as well as the potential and real possibilities of racial democracies through state violence and neglect. The intersection of these two diverging lines produces a conceptual dead zone, one that is marked by the absence of analysis engaging antiblack racism and genocide in Western democracies and the resilience of elite thinkers to disavow such analyses.[1]

Spinning off of Joy James’s theorization of a dead zone, I characterize dead zones as materially manifested conceptual gappy spaces produced by two divergent paths of thought, where one trajectory pursues the accomplishments of members of a state-oppressed, racialized group, while the second tracks the misery and demise of those—and the group as a whole—who don’t make it: bringing the two together in only unfruitful ways. Below I tell a story in order to think about how we might lively up a dead zone. In the story, dead zones struggle to emerge precisely where an exemplary, exceptional democratic state would have us unremember out of existence the destructive, oppressive engagement it wielded in the creation of its racialized members: members it always seeks to marginalize; members whose particular means and site of marginalization makes them inside the state’s precinct, while they remain, necessarily, outside of her rules of law. We can kill a dead zone by re-remembering, within the same conceptual frame, both the marginalized, oppressed peoples created through destruction, and the orderly democracies that destroyed them as a condition of creating them, while polishing their own shine.


An orphan looks out the window for the first time. “It’s the sun,” they say. “C’est quoi le soleil?” he asks.[2]

The sun shines brightly the day Mohamed finds a mother. Abandoned by his mother years later, Mohamed becomes a delinquent; he steals her prized necklace. “Maman, I’ll return your necklace, and you take me back.” Mother-no-more is having none of it. She calls the police. Mohamed does time, slashes himself; figures he doesn’t deserve to live. 1982, Mohamed leaves prison. On the outside, inside an administrative building, he takes a file bearing his birth mother’s name: Kheira Garne. Mohamed will look for his mother, but must first forge a humanity for himself, so that he will have someone worthy to present to her. As an apprentice in a hospital, Mohamed discovers that he loves to love, especially the poor. Mohamed meets his future wife. They have a son: they name him Adel, the name for Justice. Seeing the son changes everything.

Mohamed’s wife asks what’s wrong. “Your mother? Well, then find your mother! You didn’t fall out of the sky!”

A friend who works for the police locates Mohamed’s mother.

Mohamed: “Good God, there is justice after all!”

In the cité populaire of Cellier, Mohamed’s mother lives in a cemetery—in a cave between two temples, against a wall. The mailman, Si Rabah, knew the place; but Mohamed is warned by everyone not to go near her. “They call her the Wolf.” Mohamed replies:  “If she’s The Wolf, I’m her cub.”

Everyone follows Mohamed (they might all have a stake in the matter).

“Kheira! Kheira!/Silence.”

“A man is here to see you. Your son.”

Kheira comes out, finally. She’s tall, large, wearing a long tunic, and carrying an axe.

Kheira. “If you are my son, dare to put your head here.”

Mohamed places his head on his mother’s shoulder.

After months of acceptance-rejection-acceptance, complicity forms between mother and son, engendering a question of origins:  “Who is my father?”

Was he Kheira’s late husband, Bengoucha, the great revolutionary, “Commandant Fartas,” a martyr who fought against the French, and alongside the French in ’39 by forced conscription?—a man to whom Kheira was promised and delivered by her older brother. Mother says so, at first. She also says that the May 8, 1945 massacres against his people by French colonial forces—and after he had defended Her people!—made Bengoucha scream in pain. Bengoucha was at war well before November 1, 1954.

Mohamed insisted on receiving civil recognition of the glorious fact surrounding his paternity. After 4 years of retractions, the judge orders Kheira to tell the truth. In his determination—against his mother’s will—Mohamed learns what his father’s true identity could not possibly have been. He discovers that Bengoucha, the shepherd-war hero, was sterile: he had divorced two women and married a girl of 14, twenty years his junior, in search of an inconceivable son.

Kheira falls out on the courtroom floor. “You want to know what you know, M. le Juge?”

“What do I know?”

“You know what happened during the Algerian war! They raped me. They raped me. They raped me. Mohamed is the child born of this rape.”

French soldiers raped Kheira in a concentration camp. They captured her during an ambush. She hid in a tree, a dog found her. They took her to the camp. She was 15. They knew she was the wife of a revolutionary. They tortured her, for information. “Where are the weapons? Where are the others? Who gave you money?” They put her on a table in a room that smelled of beer and urine, and got to work:  water, soap, beating, “triciti”.

“They violated my honor—they tied me, beat me, humiliated me:  God alone knows.”

All day, all night French soldiers raped Kheira after they finished their rounds. Dead drunk, a whole regiment took her, took turns with her. French crime transformed Kheira into Algerian waste, to be buried less than alive.

"An outside that is inside, enacting violence; creating being a place where there's no space for it even in some in-between." - Artwork by Amanda Priebe
“An outside that is inside, enacting violence; creating being a place where there’s no space for it even in some in-between.” — Artwork by Amanda Priebe

Between 1959 and 1960, for 9 months, Kheira remained a prisoner of the French army. Barely 15 years old, her daily life was that of a slave. When the fruit of the crime revealed itself through her growing belly—though Kheira didn’t understand its significance—the French beat her stomach and starved her to make her abort the evidence. A military woman took her to the hospital. Kheira delivered. She succumbed to a mental breakdown. Eventually, she was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Mohamed went to a succession of baby-minders. It was with the last that his life in a dark closet began.

Having found his mother, Mohamed began to lose his mind. So he became a marine. He didn’t want to see his family. Every time he saw them it was a shock. The wound reopened. Perhaps he’d never heard that “if you look at the sea long enough, scenes from the past come back to life”… that “the sea is history.” Or that “the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.”[3] Mohamed did remember, however, that escape was impossible on a boat, since (unlike Jesus) he couldn’t walk on water.

Years spent between terre and mer(e), Mohamed thought of suicide, but then thought better: “My country said: ‘You are the son of French soldiers.’ I followed that voice. If I’m the son of French soldiers (son of the French state!), then I’m going to France and fight!” It was in Senegal, speaking with former ‘suitcase carrier’ for the FLN, Ahmed Khan, about the history of Blacks and world wars, that Mohamed realized what he had to do. The two men spoke facing the island of Gorée, where Khan’s forefathers had been sold, never to return.  Mohamed obtained French nationality, and left for France.


But the French state had other (preemptive) ideas in mind, and in place: dreams of amnestia—a State(ly) way of wedding amnesty to amnesia—the best way to forget the whole criminal fiasco is to declare it never happened, and to make it a crime to assert that it did.

On July 31, 1968, General de Gaulle absolved the French army from all war crimes committed during the Algerian War, thereby enacting the privilege of immunity. Mohamed may well be the only recognized victim of exactions committed by the French army in Algeria, however, he is recognized primarily as being a victim of psychiatric problems during wartime: the environment was responsible for his troubles, not the French Army.  He was not the direct victim of violence that he carries physically and morally. (“In murdering my mother’s life, France gave me life. So I must be in her.” Does he mean in Her,  that is, within France?)

Here is one French viewpoint on the matter. The war with Algeria had a profoundly traumatic effect on the French. It affected France’s fundamental values. (Which values? Logical ones, e.g., If “L’Algérie c’est la France,” then how could Algeria be independent? Moral values? France is an exemplar of civilization, unlike Nazi Germany. So how is it possible…? Criminal to even say it—so it’s not possible.) De Gaulle sought to get rid of a burden the French bore, so that it could fully assume its international role, and take a prominent place in Europe (amongst other amnestied-amnesiatized, post-colonial, democratic nations?).


How might we lively up a dead zone? Using the story of how the French state conceived Mohamed by raping Kheira—covering up its crime so that myriad meanings of its democratic existence would not be given face value—we might consider the following recommendations.

Choose a piece of fruit that embodies and bears the burden of each path, where it would be difficult (though not impossible) to separate one burden from the other—as it is difficult to remove a Damson stone from its flesh.

Cut the binary path with a third way—the one that embodies and points unapologetically to the state necessarily entwined in the criminal inception of the other two paths.

Choose fruit that must exclaim “J’accuse!” and that will act upon these words in such a way that no one but a fool could think “He is Charlie” (even should he say he is).

Choose fruit that cannot (against the best arguments in the world), follow the injunction “Lose your mother” (at least not before searching for her) because, in the first instance, the words “Find your mother” are bigger than the fruit is, as is the tree that bore it.

Further, learn to spot a Dead Zone, as did Mumia Abu-Jamal when Amy Goodman of Democracy Now remarked rather enthusiastically: “President Obama … is the first sitting president to go into a prison.” You could hear Abu-Jamal chuckling as he replied, “Yeah he went into a prison that was empty, because all of the prisoners were emptied from their cells.”[4]

Having spotted a potential dead zone, we might have brought (in the form of a surprise attack) some other kind of discourse into the prison space at the time the President was moving freely through it:  The President, who supports a presidential candidate who backed the project of mass incarceration and who now says they were wrong; the same President, under whose watch Abu Wa’el Diab suffered 12 years in Gitmo, though cleared under both Bush and himself—Wa’el Diab, a former prisoner of the State who, uncompensated by the State, continues to suffer prison-embodiment in his broken body—a living-dying site of unacknowledged State crime.[5]

Perhaps some words from the hole spoken over the PA could have echoed through the halls as the President strolled along. While he walked, making history, we could have simultaneously remade his stat(ed) history with spoken word, much as Abu-Jamal did with the power of an undisguised twitter.

To match the hole with a hole you got to become as blank as the space you’re in. You can’t let anything grow in you, especially not something as dangerous as a dream, a hope or a desire, because there’s nothing growing around you to feed it with. I was lucky because I didn’t spend years and years in the hole. I don’t know how a temporary blank born of necessity could win a long, drawn-out war against an emptiness that’s wholly and solely about being nothing.[6]

Hope we can believe in.


About the author: Janine Jones is an Associate Professor at UNCG, who works in the area of Philosophy of Race and Gender. She can be contacted at [email protected].



[1] From Joy James’s “The Dead Zone:  Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism” ( accessed 12/5/2016.

[2] For the story recounted in this text see (, accessed October 21, 2016. Also see Français par le crime j’accuse!: Algerie 1954-1962, Mohamed Garne (2011) L’Harmattan.

[3] Hartman, Saidiya (2008-01-22). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (p. 136). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[4] (accessed, December 5, 2016).

[5] In “The United States and Algeria:  The Cautious Road to Partnership (, accessed October 22, 2016), Yahia Zoubir writes “The United States and Algeria have … taken divergent positions on terrorism. While Algerians make a distinction between legitimate armed struggle or revolutionary violence against occupation, and terrorism that targets civilians and legal institutions of a State, the United States tends to give both activities the same designation.” (Does it? Under what conditions?) “The Algerians, who, like Americans, have waged a war of liberation using violence as an instrument to achieve their objective, did not characterize the PLO and its military wing Fatah or Hamas as terrorist organizations, because they consider both of them to be resistance movements. For the Algerians, the use of armed force by these organizations is a legitimate right. Although Algeria has signed the International Convention on terrorism, it warns against ‘any provision or stipulation that would undermine peoples’ legitimate struggle to regain their freedom, or designed to discredit a specific religious community.” Zoubir concludes this section of her text: “US officials have difficulty understanding Algeria’s determined position on this issue…” I take it (perhaps wrongly so) that the US does understand France absolving the French of war crimes, just as it absolves itself, officially or not, of such crimes. “US dealings with Algeria,” Zoubir writes, “have been antagonistic from Algerian independence in 1962 until the past decade.” One major problem is the fact that “Algeria continues to oppose what it perceives the United States’ global hegemonic aims” (Zoubir). Are US citizens then to understand that from the perspective of the United States Algeria suffers from a gross misperception, on this count? Or are they to comprehend that when President-elect Trump tweets, as he did on Monday, November 28, 2016, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal,” his threat is not some new form of dictatorial US engagement with other nations, but, rather, the presentation of an old deal boldly bearing a trader’s face rather than a missile’s barrel? (, accessed 11/28/2016.).

[6] These words were inspired by an inmate, now deceased, who spent time in the hole in a California State prison.

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